Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 3, 2019 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

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Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:12b-13 (1 Corinthians 13:12b-13)

Some of you may know that I grew up in a large family, the youngest of six children. Now, like most youngest children, especially those of us at the end of a long line of other children, I have a rather different memory of growing up than do my older siblings. Their opinion of me and mine of them may or may not match any kind of objective reality. So, if you had told any of my brothers or sisters that I would become a priest in the Episcopal Church when I grew up, they most likely would have laughed in your face.

Similarly, had there been such a thing as a high school superlative for “most likely to become a priest,” I would not have been anywhere near that list. To be honest, even Iwould not have put myself on that list, and for many years fought even the idea that I might be call to ordained ministry.

These folks that Jesus encounters in Nazareth are kind of like my family and my schoolmates. At first, as we read last week, they were excited about this home-grown-boy-makes good, packing the synagogue to hear him read from the Isaiah scroll, telling them that the year of God’s favor was here – the oppressed would go free, the blind would see, the poor would hear Good News.

I’m not sure why the compilers of our lectionary divided this story into two parts, but what we have is a half-good, half-bad reading rather than a single, coherent telling of this scene. What we get today is the gathered assembly beginning to wonder about Jesus. “Wait a minute, we know him. He’s the carpenter’s son.” And Jesus, rather than moderating his words or trying to curry favor, begins to tell them things they don’t want to hear. 

You have to wonder if the people weren’t thinking that maybe they would receive some kind of special treatment from this hometown hero. Theyknewhim. They watched him run around as a child. They watched him fall down and skin his knee, roam around town with his friends, go to synagogue with his family. Surelyhe had something special just for them, didn’t he?

Well, no.

Jesus knows what the people are thinking. He knows they’ve heard about the miracles he worked over in Capernaum, and that they expect that and more. Instead, what Jesus gives them is a reminder of two of the greatest prophets from the Hebrew bible who worked their miracles not with the people of Israel but with foreigners. Foreigners. In 1 Kings, Elijah stays with the widow of Zarephath, a village in present-day Lebanon, during a three-year famine and the food never runs out. Elijah’s successor Elisha similarly heals a foreigner, Naaman the Syrian, of leprosy. It’s as if Jesus is taunting the people of Nazareth. “You think I came for you? God’s Good News isn’t just for you.And if you think you deserve some special treatment because you know me, you’d better think again.”

There are so many places in the bible where Jesus lets us in on the reallygood news he’s about, that God’s love is for everybody. No exceptions. In John, we hear that there are “sheep not of this fold” (John 10:16) and “when I am lifted up, I will draw allpeople to me” (John 12:32). In Matthew, we just heard about magi from the East who recognized the baby in a manger as the messiah. Matthew and Mark both end with Jesus sending the disciples out intoall the world with this Good News. There is perhaps no gospel more inclusive of the outsider than Luke. And Jesus pointed to this right here in today’s reading, which you may recall, is considered his inaugural address, the very first things he said. He is telling those around him, and even us, what his mission is.

And they missed it. We miss it. 

I wonder what Jesus would say if he walked in this door today and sat down with that same passage from Isaiah? 

Instead of talking about all the good we have done and commending us for it, maybe he would talk about the Muslims who raised a couple of hundred thousand dollars for the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh after the assault that left 11 dead last October. Or maybe Jesus would give a shout-out to T’ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, who support human rights across the globe, who stood with us in Charlottesville in August, 2017, and who do not hesitate to critique of the State of Israel in its oppression of Palestinians and the continued expansion of illegal settlements. Their motto, by the way, is “Resisting tyrants since pharaoh.”

Jesus wouldn’t be telling us how bad we are or undeserving of his care. What he would be saying, first of all, is that we’re not necessarily the most in need. So maybe we don’t need to be the first in line for his signs and wonders. “Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last,” (Luke 13:30) he said a bit later.

Secondly, he’d just be pointing out that we aren’t the only ones for whom God humbled Godself to take on human form. Some Christians have made it an identifying marker of their faith to believe that Jesus came only for those who believe certain things and behave in certain ways. They somehow manage to completely miss what Paul had to say about being “saved by grace through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). It isn’t about who we are or what we do or how good and upright we are. You know as well as I do that we are incapable, on our own, to perfectly do all the things we ought to do and to love as God in Christ loved us. And yet, we are still saved by God’s grace.

The beautiful hymn to love that is our second reading today from 1 Corinthians is so out of place at weddings, because it isn’t talking about romantic love. Yes, we can hope that marital love “bears all things…hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). But the kind of love Paul is writing about is agape, the selfless love that Jesus showed to all of us, the perfect love that is a gift from God – unmerited, unearned, underserved, of infinite value and yet free to all. What an amazing gift!

When Jesus tells those gathered in the synagogue 

 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free, 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (Luke 4:18-19)

he’s talking about this kind of love, freely given, available to all. The mistake the gathering made was to try to hoard it for themselves, to take first dibs rather than recognizing that those poor, captive, blind, and oppressed need it more, no matter who they are or where they live.

There is no limit to God’s love, to God’s grace, to God’s mercy and forgiveness. I hope that if Jesus walked in this door and read those same words, we would all respond not with “what about us?” but with “here, Jesus, we’ll go with you.”

That’s still the invitation, you know. To see what God is up to in our neighborhood and to partner in that work. Our presiding bishop is fond of quoting an old spiritual when he says, “When love is the way, there’s plenty good room – plenty good room – for all of God’s children.”[1]

 So don’t worry. There’s plenty to go around. “Faith, hope, and love abide. And the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13), and “if it’s not about love, then it’s not about God.”[2]Period.


[1]https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/05/20/612798691/bishop-michael-currys-royal-wedding-sermon-full-text-of-the-power-of-love

[2]https://www.diocesemo.org/news/2016/09/24/if-its-not-about-love

ASEPSermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 3, 2019 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas